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The Naked Sun Is Another Great Indie Band from Rockin’ Philadelphia

17 May

Philadelphia has become a hotbed of indie rock. From big names such as The War on Drugs, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Kurt Vile, Dr. Dog, and Bardo Pond — to more recent additions or lesser-known (but still great!) acts such as The Chairman Dances, Hop Along and Beach Slang, the City of Brotherly Love has become the City of Bodacious Rock.

Now another band needs to be added to the list: The Naked Sun.

Debut album, War With Shadows, offers a 10-song set of power folk-rock and Americana. The band is led by Andrew (Drew) Wesley Harris, who handles the songwriting, lead vocals and rhythm guitar. He’s surrounded by five other superb musicians: Tim Campbell (lead electric and pedal steel guitar, plus backing vocals), Alan Sheltzer (piano, organ and synths), Ken Letherer (bass), Dave Gladney (drums), and Nerissa Jaucian (backing and sometimes lead vocals).

The album was produced by Brian McTear, who also works his magic with The War on Drugs and Kurt Vile — giving War With Shadows a professional polish.

Early reviews have labeled the album as guitar-driven rock that’s “restrained and subtle.” It’s certainly that, and more — a wonderful debut from a group proving that they belong as part of this city’s vibrant indie rock scene.

Track highlights: The album opens with “Do You Wanna Dance?” a song that immediately illustrates the band’s versatility. It’s a rock song driven by a pulsing beat laid down by Pat Kerkery (The War on Drugs) — but it also includes strummed guitar and some sort of airy flute-like music that floats throughout. There’s a bit of a jangle at times and a really nice guitar solo in the lead break.

The first single is a more traditional rocker, “Holdin’ Back The Heart.” The song has been around for years and apparently has closed many of the band’s live performances. The tune shows off the incredible harmonies the band is capable of producing.

“Rose Gold” definitely crosses over into Americana territory with a piano-based tune that has a nice alt-country sway. The lead vocals are almost a duet between Harris and Jaucian.

“Purple Sunset” features a fingerpicked, chimey guitar — together with some jangle and piano — and shifts between softer, more introspective moments and harder, driving sections.

War With Shadows wraps with “Clouds,” an uplifting closer that includes an opening cello part along with piano, guitars (including pedal steel), and drums. It’s a very nice finish to a highly satisfying album.

 

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Humboldt County’s Rachel Beccaria Is a True Songbird

8 May

As a DJ on KZSU Stanford, I get the opportunity to play a wide variety of fresh new releases from indie artists across the country, and in fact, around the world. Many of these artists are from well-known hotbeds of music: from the San Francisco Bay Area to Austin, Texas or Athens, Georgia — and from London, England to Melbourne, Australia.

But the best part of being a DJ and writing this blog is when I’m introduced to a truly gifted artist who is virtually unknown and from an area so small that you probably couldn’t find it on a map.

Such is the case with Rachel Beccaria, a Songbird from Freshwater, California — nestled deep in Humboldt County’s redwood forests on California’s rugged Northcoast.

The backstory on this young lady is that she has had little formal musical training, but has been writing poetry in a personal journal for years. Beccaria discovered her singing voice in her twenties and began writing songs that express the emotions in her poetry.

In 2016, she made contacts with a number of local musicians including Zach Zwerdling (a guitarist and lawyer, who graduated from Stanford in 1973). Zwerdling was toying with the idea of starting his own small label, Mercury Sky Records. After two years of writing and recording — using other local musicians and a local recording studio — Beccaria’s EP Songbird became Mercury Sky’s first release.

The album is a revelation — primarily downhome folk-pop, with a hint of alt country and one pop-rocker. The arrangements are clean and crisp and the musical talent is first-rate throughout. The six songs included on the EP offer a thoroughly enjoyable — if too short — listen.

Track highlights: After a short and inspirational a cappella hymn, “The Strength Within,” to open the EP, the second track, “Do Anything,” is a mid-tempo, bouncy folk-pop tune with a nice bass line and just a hint of country in the vocals. It’s the first single from the EP. Co-writer, Dominic Romano, joins Beccaria on the vocals.

Track 4, “Used Again,” illustrates Beccaria’s breadth. This one is a melodic pop-rocker, with smoldering resentment evident in the storytelling vocals. There’s some edgy guitar work and a bit of synth as well.

“Unexpected” shifts back to a confessional ballad, with strummed and fingerpicked guitar — and a shimmering synth track.

The closing number is another highlight of the Songbird EP. “Better With You” is an upbeat, toe-tapping duet with Scott William Perry, who’s from the Medford area in southern Oregon. This is a song you’ll want to turn all the way up on a road trip with the windows down this summer.

Beccaria’s Songbird EP was released at a sold-out show in Eureka’s Historic Eagle House on May 4th. It’s available on iTunes, Amazon Music and Bandcamp — as well as through the leading streaming services. Congrats to Mercury Sky Records for shining a light on this wonderful new artist.

 

“Sloan 12” Is Solid Indie Rock from a Canadian Band with a 27-Year History

2 May

Sloan 12 is the twelfth album from the Canadian power-pop band, Sloan.

Coincidentally, this is a 12-song set of indie rock that showcases the distinct songwriting talents of all four band members. Guitarists Patrick Pentland and Jay Ferguson, bassist Chris Murphy, and drummer Andrew Scott each contributed three songs to the new release.

The musical mix on Sloan 12 ranges from big, guitar-driven anthems to 1970s-style progressive pop and even some folky pop-rock that’s reminiscent of the Byrds or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSN&Y).

After 27 years, the four original band members are still part of the band. The only change is that Sloan has added Gregory Macdonald to play keyboards when they record or tour. Murphy and Pentland sing most of the lead vocals, but when the band is performing one of drummer Scott’s songs, he not only sings the lead vocals, but also steps out front on guitar — with Ferguson and Murphy switching to the bass and drums, respectively.

With that kind of songwriting and multi-instrumental talent, you might assume that you’re in for a treat. And Sloan 12 does not disappoint.

Track highlights: The album opens with “Spin our Wheels.” With its searing guitars, driving drums, and big ‘classic rock’ backing vocals, this is a great anthemic power-pop single.

“Right to Roam” is reminiscent of one of those catchy progressive pop songs that became a hit with the rise of FM radio in the 1970s.

“The Day Will Be Mine” is another catchy song that offers potential as a single — with its crunchy guitar and soaring lead vocals.

“Essential Services” is really nice piano-based pop with sweet harmonies and a lightly skipping melody, enhanced by Beatles-like harmonies.

Finally, my review wouldn’t be complete without writing about “44 Teenagers,” the closing song in the set. It’s a more pensive rock tune that starts like the rich folk-rock of the 1960s, but shifts to a heavier sound in the middle. Lyrics reference the death of Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie from brain cancer.

Sloan 12 reflects the maturity of more than a quarter of a century writing, performing and playing together. It’s a solid indie rock album from this veteran Canadian foursome.

Husky’s “Punchbuzz” an Uplifting, Intelligent Collection of Indie Pop-Rock

19 Apr

Melbourne, Australia’s indie pop-rock duo, Husky, is back with their third full-length release, Punchbuzz.

Husky Gawenda, who sings lead vocals and plays guitar, founded the group in 2008 along with Gideon Preiss, who plays keyboards and contributes to the rich vocals. Starting as primarily an indie folk act, Husky continues to build on their folky beginnings by incorporating synthesizers and a variety of electronic sounds and effects into this solid 10-song set.

Punchbuzz was released in mid-2017 and Husky focuses most of their support for their music on the Australian market — so the album is relatively unknown in the States. But this is a cohesive collection of songs that’s well worth your time to get to know — reminding me of bands such as Fleet Foxes, Crosby, Stills & Nash at their most harmonious, the ethereal feeling of The War on Drugs, and even a dash of homage to psyche bands of the 1960s at times.

Track highlights: “Ghost” is the warm and welcoming opener — shimmering synth-pop that features soothing, mellow lead vocals throughout, with catchy choruses.

“Shark Fin” follows that up with its frenetic, Flashdance-like electronic drumbeats under jangly guitar riffs. Lots of cool harmonies in the lead break.

Another highlight on Punchbuzz is “Late Night Store,” a tune that’s light and crisp — with great changes of pace and plenty of hooks. The synths are taut and chirpy over a stop-n-go rhythm.

When “Walking in your Sleep” starts, you’d swear that Husky borrowed the guitarist from Fleetwood Mac. The guitar riffs sound so familiar. Once again, Gawenda’s vocal style is light and breezy, with bell-like keys and a 1970s feeling overall.

The closer for the 10-song set is perhaps the most fascinating track on the album. It’s experimental and ethereal, with warped synths rising, falling and swirling over a vaguely Caribbean rhythm. The lyrics are moody about lovers on a beach — with plenty of references to ghosts — ultimately tying this closer to the album opener.

There are other lyrical references such as “splinters in the fire” that carry over from one song to another as well, connecting central themes — making Husky’s Punchbuzz a tight, intelligent set of indie pop-rock that I think you just may love.

 

Anton Barbeau’s Jangly “Natural Causes” Is Easy on the Ears

11 Apr

Sacramento-born and now based in Berlin, Anton Barbeau is an exceptionally creative and prolific artist who explores the boundaries of musical inventiveness. Natural Causes is his latest album — officially released this Friday, April 13th — a shimmering collection of intelligent psyche-pop, art rock and general quirkiness.

The 15 songs (including four short tracks of less than 30 seconds that provide an intro, outro or bridge for the collection) offer a nice mix of jangle rock, throwback psychedelic rock and progressive rock — featuring a rich 12-string guitar, Mellotron and analog synthesizers.

As has been true on many of Barbeau’s 23 — yes, 23! — records, he has made good use of many talented guest artists in recording Natural Causes. These musicians include Robbie McIntosh (Pretenders, Paul McCartney), Nick Saloman and Ade Shaw of the Bevis Frond, Michael Urbano (Todd Rundgren, Neil Finn), Andy Metcalfe (Robyn Hitchcock), and local favorites, Karla Kane and Khoi Huynh from the Corner Laughers.

The result is a thoroughly enjoyable album that will grow on you as you play it over and over again and discover new musical riffs and lyrics that appeal to your various tastes and senses.

Track highlights: After a short preamble with an introduction of Anton Barbeau over a heavenly chorus, “Magazine Street” gets the album off to a rollicking start. The tune is big, bright, energetic, and strummy. Interestingly, it’s actually a fresh take on a song that Barbeau originally wrote and recorded for his first album.

Skipping ahead to track 7, “Magic Sandwiches” transports us back to 1967 for a tune that’s eerily reminiscent of “I Am the Walrus” from the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. A great psychedelic rock anthem.

The second half of the album has many of my favorites on Natural Causes. Track 9, “Just Passing By,” is bigger rock with a soaring, fuzzy guitar solo. “Neck Pillow” is illustrative of how Barbeau can write about anything — in this case, a favored neck pillow. That’s Karla Kane of the Corner Laughers singing the harmonies.

Track 11, “Creepy Tray,” is a swaying, synth-based tune with a jangly 12-string guitar and a great bass line.

The final full-length track on the album is my personal favorite, “Down Around the Radio.” It’s a fun, catchy art-rock number with circular construction featuring piano and again, a 12-string guitar. A nice tribute to the power of radio in our lives.

Overall, Natural Causes is a fine album to add to your collection from a Northern California indie rock artist.

 

Belle and Sebastian Serve a Sumptuous Feast of Indie Pop-Rock on “How to Solve our Human Problems”

22 Mar

For an indie band, Belle and Sebastian has enjoyed tremendous popularity with critics and a loyal legion of fans. The group formed in Glasgow, Scotland in the mid-1990s and ahs long been known for its catchy, melodic indie pop, leaning toward folk-rock and chamber pop.

In 2015, Belle and Sebastian surprised its fans with Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, a collection that ranged from jittery European techno-pop to its more traditional folk-rock sound. The album and corresponding tour were very successful and took the band across Europe and the U.S. including a stop right up the road at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre. It was one of the best shows I’ve seen.

Now, Belle and Sebastian are back with their follow-up, How to Solve our Human Problems, a truly eclectic collection of tunes even more diverse than what was served up on Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance.

The tracks were released over a period of three months (Dec. 2017 – Feb. 2018) on three separate five-song EPs. These songs have now been brought together into a massive 70-minute set of “witty, tuneful indie pop” as Rolling Stone describes it — with tracks ranging from disco-inspired dance-y synth-pop to baroque-pop and everything in between.

Some critics have quietly wondered whether it might have been better to whittle away a few of the less desirable tracks and release a tighter 10 – 12 track album. But true to their indie tradition, Belle and Sebastian treat us to a sumptuous feast of new music to enjoy in 2018.

Track highlights: There are so many outstanding songs on this album that it’s impossible to narrow them down to the usual three or four.

“Sweet Dew Lee” is a breezy, dance-y synth-pop number with jangly guitar that opens the 15-song set. “We Were Beautiful” is next, and it’s one of the album’s standouts. The song features urgent, slightly edgy synth-pop with a skittering trip-hop beat, a touch of pedal steel guitar and anthemic choruses.

Track 4, “The Girl Doesn’t Get It,” is also synth-pop in a Brian Eno style or something that closely resembles the music on the New Pornographers’ most recent album.

By track 8, the oboe that opens “I’ll Be your Pilot” signals a turn toward chamber pop. This is a heartfelt, sentimental ballad dedicated to lead singer-songwriter, Stuart Murdoch’s young son.

Track 10, the last on the second of the originally issued five-song EPs is “A Plague on All Other Boys,” a stately baroque-pop ode to Belle and Sebastian’s early years. Murdoch’s always highly literate lyrics parse the topic of first love.

There are three highlights among the final five tracks. “Everything Is Now (Part Two)” is a fuller, more complete and highly intriguing version of the fifth track, “Everything Is Now.” The title of both versions is eerily similar to Arcade Fire’s “Everything Now” — interesting that the two indie bands are on such a similar wavelength.

“There Is an Everlasting Love” is a strummy, uplifting folk-rock number with optimistic lyrics about the harsh realities life sometimes brings. The closing number, “Best Friend,” is the only song not sung by Murdoch or his bandmate, Sarah Martin. This is a catchy, soulful 1960s-style tune featuring Glasgow’s Carla J. Easton as guest vocalist.

As I said, How to Solve our Human Problems, is a fun, highly enjoyable collection of music that new and old fans alike will want to have. I’ll dip into the album on the next two Fridays on my Friday morning show on KZSU.

 

David Byrne’s New Album Asks Listeners to Imagine an “American Utopia”

14 Mar

“I dance like this/Because it feels so damn good/If I could dance better/Well, you know that I would.”

“The chicken imagines a heaven/Full of roosters and plenty of corn.”

“The mind is a soft-boiled potato.”

“Now a dog cannot imagine/What it is to drive a car/And we, in turn, are limited/By what it is we are.”

“The bullet went into him/His skin did part in two/Skin that women had touched/The bullet passed on through.”

These are among the random things that David Byrne, formerly the lead singer-songwriter of the influential New Wave band, the Talking Heads, has been pondering recently. We know this because he sings about this and more in the ten songs that comprise his intriguing new album, American Utopia.

At age 66 (in May), most artists are slowing down. One couldn’t blame Byrne for making an album that sentimentally looks back on his heyday with the Talking Heads, and gives his legions of fans the opportunity to buy some new music that reminds them of the old music they love.

But this is David Byrne we’re talking about. And even at his, eh hem, advanced age — he still thinks and acts much younger and more creatively than many artists in their 20s and 30s.

While this is technically his first solo album since 2004, Byrne has made two other exceptional albums in recent years — one a collaboration with Brian Eno and the other with St. Vincent. This follows in the paths of those innovative undertakings.

American Utopia features indie pop-rock that’s at once melodic and, in many ways, experimental. Built on drum tracks originally supplied by Eno, the songs make use of a number of collaborators and feature a variety of rhythms, electronic effects and noise within the arrangements. Meanwhile, the lyrics are typical Byrne — intelligent, full of wonder and disarmingly original — telling life stories from unexpected perspectives.

In many ways, it seems like Byrne is still trying to figure out ”How did I get here?”

Track highlights: The best song in the set is one you may have already heard, “Everybody’s Coming to my House.” Driven by a jittery, syncopated beat and busy bass line, the catchy tune finds Byrne reaching his highest register in the vocals.

The first track on the album, “I Dance Like This,” starts out as a lo-fi piano ballad — but breaks into Devo-like robotic dance moments several times through the song.

Track 2, “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets,” sets up a nice, bouncy groove with a consistent bass line and skittering drum track.

“It’s Not Dark Up Here” is another song that’s reminiscent of early Talking Heads — but with a funky feeling over an exotic rhythm and Byrne singing, “Hey! It’s not dark up here!”

Finally, don’t overlook, “Doing the Right Thing,” an avant-garde lounge tune that transitions into a synth-powered progressive anthem in the lead break.

To support American Utopia, David Byrne will be on tour throughout much of 2018, including stops in Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose in August.